The Nameless Horror

Review: The Bone Keeper

What’s this? It’s only a review of The Bone Keeper by Luca Veste, which isn’t even out until March. Sorcery!

The Bone Keeper

Disclaimer: Luca has said nice things about my own writing in the past before he became famous, and he has several of my family members and at least one pet held hostage in secret locations around the country, each strapped to (or in the case of Mr Tiddles, trapped inside with nothing but a squeaky mouse for company) a nuclear weapon. He’s a maniac and must be stopped.

In his latest, Luca veers away from his police procedural series to venture into serial killing urban legend territory (though one of the central characters is still a detective).

A woman (whose surname, possibly coincidentally - there’s a few of us around, is Rickards) is found staggering down a street, bloody and clearly tortured. All she’s able to say to start with is a fragment of a local childhood rhyme about the mythical “Bone Keeper”, said to lurk in the woods and kill people to steal their bones, and who, presumably, may not be as mythical as the adult officers who know the rhyme from their own childhoods might have told themselves.

I can’t say much about how it develops because, hey, spoilers, but the Bone Keeper himself is enjoyably nasty and alien, the other characters have plenty of depth, the various plot elements roll along snappily, the families of his other victims and the effect the killings/disappearances have had on them are particularly nicely drawn, and there’s a very clever bait and switch: one character lost her brother to the killer, one has a tragic fire-related history, and Luca lets you believe it’s not the character you think has either, without making you feel at all cheated when clarity comes.

For the most part it plays out like any good slasher story - the Bone Keeper remains creepy as you like (in a similar way to the killer in Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine, if you’ve read that (and you should)) - until the truth comes out. When things come to a head, I was immediately reminded (without spoiling anything; this reference could mean anything) of Hot Fuzz. Not that it’s comical at all - not at all, but rather there’s an aspect of what’s happening that… well, spoilers. It’s no bad thing - Fuzz is a great menacing British murder story as well as a comedy - and the resolution is entirely bought and paid-for by the build up to it.

Well worth your time and filthy, filthy money when it’s out…

Now please can I have Mr Tiddles back, Luca?

2017, then

So here we are again, blowing away the cobwebs once more. The year’s been insanely busy with editing work - at one point before Easter I was booking up short stories over two months in advance, and it’s taken me a month to finish writing this post - and that’s limited lots of things, like work on my own stuff, reading for fun, writing about the latter. And dealing with the existential dread that comes with living with 2017’s political fucknuttery, of course.

So here’s a couple of things in brief form.

Bullet Gal (Andrez Bergen)

It took me a long time to get to this and I feel bad for that because Andrew’s had one hell of a year (and it’s getting little better; he’s currently thousands of miles from his family again undergoing further rehab for a stroke). But it was worth it - this is a return to Heropa (a city whose first outing I loved) and a look at its most legendary superhero. It’s punchy, wryly funny, and carries all the flair and imagination you’d expect from Bergen. He’s had a bastard of a year so do yourself a favour and buy some/all of his stuff.

Then She Was Gone (Luca Veste)

Many, many years ago, Luca wrote reviews and said lots of nice things about my Levels books. Somehow in the interim he’s written a zillion books of his own and minstrels fanfare his every entrance at publishing events. He sent me this ages ago and I read it ages ago and said nothing because I’m a bad person. This is accomplished and engaging British police procedural and I’d happily read the others in the series. The serial killer standalone he’s got out next year looks swish too.

Screenwriting Tricks For Authors (Alexandra Sokoloff)

I do enjoy peering into approaches to storycrafting, and this is a good one. More practically-minded than ones like Into The Woods, less prescriptive than most. There’s some repetition in the breakdowns, particularly Jaws, but that’s forgivable and there’s plenty of good stuff here for writers of all stripes.

Save The Cat! (Blake Snyder)

This, however, is (mostly) not. There’s some decent general advice, though nothing not covered elsewhere, and a whole lot of trumpet-blowing and guff. It’s also gratingly ’old Hollywood’ in its treatment of gender at times (maybe more so because I read Alex’s book right before this one). I know Snyder had a track record - selling thirteen scripts (IIRC), two of which were made, and teaching widely - so he was no idiot and maybe the style carried better in person, but I kept being reminded that the two he did see made were Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (though he only mentions this one once, presumably because his screenplay won a Razzie and the movie is widely regarded as one of the worst mainstream films ever made) and Blank Check (only mildly better regarded), and maybe my expectations lowered to match. In all honesty, Michael Moorcock’s ’Novel In Three Days’ advice or the Lester Dent Master Plot are probably as useful or more so, easier to digest, and above all, free.

To Catch A Rabbit (Helen Cadbury)

Helen tragically died a few weeks ago, but she was a fine writer and her work has all the awareness and sharpness of the best Britcrime. Go read.

So there we go. In between, I’ve made it to Harrogate crime festival for the first time in years, released a complete and bundled version of Portal of the Gods into the wild, and stopped completely neglecting my own self-pubbed work, for now at least.

In the meantime, back to editing.

Not dead, PORTAL OF THE GODS starts

It’s perfectly normal not to post anything beyond a poor bird pun for seven months. Shut up.

In all seriousness, I’ve not had much to post; I’ve fallen off the reading wagon, partly as a result of starting a bunch of things that didn’t grab like I’d hoped, partly as a result of time and editing workload. It’s harder to read for fun when you’re reading a lot for work. But I’m embarking on clearing some of the backlog of completed-and-unused output gathering dust on my hard drive, and my workload has eased off for the moment (so if you’re looking for an editor then now’s the time…), so here’s a thing! A thing that is, in fact, the first of several things!

Portal of the Gods 1: Shadow

Portal of the Gods 1: Shadow

In the foothills of the Andes there’s a relic of a pre-human civilization, the gateway through which the gods themselves supposedly first walked the Earth. A door to other worlds, other times. A portal through which you can take back everything you’ve ever lost, or ever had taken from you, if you can master it.

Jack Harker’s a washed-up adventure junkie with a knack for languages and getting himself in trouble. But when armed strangers break into his house looking for his parents’ old notes on the legendary lost city of Huayacapo, they inadvertently draw him into a secret war that’s been raging for a century and a half, a shadow conflict to unearth the past, and to control the future.

It’s going to be a long, strange road, and it starts here.

Portal of the Gods is an episodic secret history conspiracy thriller of which SHADOW is the first, shortest, instalment.

Find it on my own site, or else at Amz US, Amz UK, Amz Ca (etc.), Kobo, iBooks.

The two of you (hi, mom!) reading this who also know my Tragic Backstory may know that my agent quit on me while I was midway through a book in a genre he’d encouraged me to try in the first place, without telling me. This is the book. (I’ve since busied myself writing something else and I’m now finally getting my shit together to get a fresh agent.)

It was planned and written in four discreet sections (aside from a prologue and epilogue, split by geography; this is a pulp-ish adventure story and I’d be damned if I was going to write one of those without an element of line-crosses-map-with-accompanying-plane-footage to it), and so I’m releasing it in episodes, cleaning and tidying as I go. (Badly, as it turns out; I managed to use the UK-spelling version of the draft for SHADOW because I’m a fucking idiot, but it’s such a hoop-jumping process getting price-matched on Amazon that I’m buggered if I’m changing it now. Americans will have to live with “favour” etc. until the second episode.)

This, the first, is free (or will be, once the various branches of Amazon catch up with the US), with the other three, novella-length entries costing a pittance. I’m a fan of try-before-you-buy and this seemed like the best way of doing it.

Lost cities! Secret histories! A conspiracy that has absolutely nothing to do for once with either big business or the Catholic Church! And so on. In truth, while I took a pulp sensibility to the general story, and as much as I enjoy a spot of Lester Dent/DOC SAVAGE, I’ve not used it in the prose, and I’ve been careful to try to make everything grounded. No screaming dames, no thousand-year-old deathtraps that mysteriously still work with perfect mechanical precision, no action without a real sense of threat here. But there may be monsters and exotic locations and undead horrors as the series progresses…


My God, it’s been nearly four months. I mean, I’ve been busy, but not that busy. Anyway, here’s some reading done.

The Dark Defiles (Richard Morgan)

The Dark Defiles

The Dark Defiles wraps up Richard Morgan’s trilogy of delightfully visceral fantasy novels that started with The Steel Remains. I loved that, really loved The Cold Commands and so the last was an easy Christmas present. It did take ages to read, but this was a combination of a pile of work, other things eating into my reading time, and the fact that this isn’t a short read; it can’t be much under 180k words if it’s not more.

The series’ strengths have always been its very grounded characters, its conflicted background (there are no all-out good guys here), and its punchy writing, and all of those are present and correct here too. The first is especially impressive given this is the culmination of a fairly epic fantasy tale, and even though the fate of the world hangs in the balance and Gil, Egar and Archeth have seen their fortunes rise and fall throughout, there’s no pomp or posturing here at all. Motivations remain base and human.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’d happily recommend it to anyone so long as they don’t mind a whole load of sex, violence and bad language (and I suspect I don’t know that many who do).

But, but. I had one quibble, and I think it’s one in some form or another others have had too: I wish it had been longer. The story ends where it does because Gil’s story ends there, and I get that and I get the intent to keep the epic stuff as backdrop in a sort of subversion of the norm. But the backdrop drives so much of the actual narrative that to leave all but one facet of it (the Aldrain) completely unresolved left it feeling incomplete, like there was a fourth book coming.

The whole reason the characters end up where they are at the end of the second book and the start of the third is that their Kiriath helmsman (a sort of AI, if you like) is trying to set those on the expedition up as a cabal to overthrow mad Emperor Jhiral and put Archeth on the throne so she can carry on the Kiriath mission of shepherding humanity (minor spoiler; this is revealed early). She refuses to have anything to do with it when she finds out, and by this point Jhiral has for some reason launched a war with the League causing them all sorts of problems, the fate of nations hanging in the balance, shaping their every choice and action… and the story ends with no one less than a thousand miles from home and everything still going on.

There’s all sorts of talk about how the church suppressed in The Cold Commands will use it to reestablish their importance and threaten this and that, talk about what it’ll do to the League, to Jhiral’s reputation and… you’ll have to fill all that in yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book. I do wish those elements had either been reduced in terms of the space allocated or else tied off just a little more, but to be frank “I wish there’d been more” - and who ever asked for more political outcomes in their fantasy reading? - is scant complaint indeed. Thoroughly impressive.

Winter’s Bone (Daniel Woodrell)

Winter’s Bone

I know, it’s a classic, I’m late to the party, blah blah blah. Still, I’ve now read it and you should too.

Winter’s Bone is about as opposite to The Dark Defiles in terms of its scale, size, and setting as it’s possible to get. It’s a short, sharp piece of work dealing with the fate of the Ozark family led by eldest daughter Ree Dolly after the disappearance of her court-bound meth cook father and the complex web of interconnected local family offshoots she has to deal with to get to the truth before she loses their house because her dad used it to pay his bond.

It’s pretty bleak stuff, dealing in rural poverty, family ties, and what it takes to get you through as much as it does (or more than it does, really; it’s all-consuming backdrop, but backdrop nonetheless) life in the meth business.

The writing’s superb, blisteringly cold and hard without veering into suffering porn territory. Things aren’t easy for the Dollys but it’s a life and it has high points as well as low. Ree’s extremely well drawn, as are most of the supporting cast, and the local landscape, the valley the Dollys and their relatives have lived in for generations is wonderfully realized. Bleak, then, without being grim or completely hopeless.

It’s also a fine example of a story told in part by omission, and without a final confrontation between two sides. While it’s the fate of Ree’s father that propels her, and (minor spoilers ahoy) it does indeed turn out he’s dead as she suspects for a reason that would give people motive, she never finds out, and you never find out, who killed him; Uncle Teardrop tells her he knows, and by inference he’s not expecting to be returning, one way or another, from dealing with that, but that event isn’t a part of Ree’s story.

Really good. Strong writing, strong voice, very human story. Loved it, and I’ll be reading more Woodrell.